On April 18, 1983, at one o’clock in the afternoon, a van carrying two thousand pounds of explosives blew up outside the American embassy in Beirut, killing sixty-three people. Among the victims were seventeen Americans, eight of whom represented the Central Intelligence Agency’s entire Middle East contingent. In the years preceding the bombing, an increasing number of attacks on Western and Israeli interests had been carried out by Palestinian and Muslim extremists, but the Beirut bombing was widely seen as a watershed event for American policies in the region. With the exception of the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran four years earlier, an act that was carried out within the framework of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the embassy bombing represented the first time America had been so directly and bloodily targeted by Islamic terrorists for its military involvement in the Middle East.
It’s impossible to see why the United States was such an unwelcome force without an understanding of the history of Lebanon and the surrounding region, and of American and Western involvement in the politics of the Middle East in general. Though Lebanon has existed in one form or another since the ninth century b.c., the modern country of Lebanon was not established until 1920, when it was granted to the French as part of a system of mandates established for the administration of former Turkish and German territories following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, almost all of what we think of as the modern Middle East was shaped by these mandates.
America’s first direct intervention in Lebanese politics came in 1946. During World War II, Lebanon had been declared a free state in order to liberate it from Vichy control. But when, after the war, Lebanon eventually moved toward full independence, the French balked, and the United States, Britain, and several Arab governments stepped in to support Lebanese independence. It was at this time that Lebanon’s system of political power sharing was devised. Well aware of the country’s shaky precolonial past and determined to keep Lebanon intact, the fledgling nationalist government agreed to split power along sectarian lines, based on the numbers of the 1932 census.
It was a well-intentioned plan, but one that inadvertently set the stage for decades of strife and civil war.
The power-sharing government’s first major stumbling block came with the partitioning of the British Mandate of Palestine in the wake of World War II, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed. The ensuing influx of some 100,000 Palestinian refugees into Lebanon proved a strain on the carefully crafted power-sharing system. Tensions were further exacerbated in 1956, when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, provoking the United States, along with Britain, France, and Israel, to respond with military force. While Lebanese Muslims wanted the government to back the newly created United Arab Republic, Christians fought to keep the nation allied with the West. In 1958, with the country teetering on the brink of civil war, the United States sent marines into Lebanon to support the government of President Camille Chamoun, thus inextricably linking itself with Christian forces.
It was an alliance that would be tested when, nearly two decades later, sectarian rivalries finally erupted into full-scale civil war. While Lebanon had enjoyed a period of relative peace and prosperity, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, and between the United States and Iran, had escalated significantly, as had tensions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. By the spring of 1975-when gunmen from the Christian Phalange militia attacked a bus in the suburbs of Beirut and massacred twenty-seven Palestinians on board in what is widely agreed to have been the first act of the civil war-the forces at work in Lebanon were not merely internal ones. The Cold War, as well as the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, were both being played out in Lebanon, and would be throughout the course of the war, as international players funneled weapons and money to the various Christian, Muslim, and Druze militias.
The United States was a major player in the civil war from the beginning, providing mainly covert support for the Christian government, with whom it had traditionally been allied. But it wasn’t until1982, after the Israeli siege of Beirut, the assassination of Phalange leader Bachir Gemayel, and the horrific massacres at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, that U.S. troops, along with other members of a multinational peacekeeping force, formally intervened in the conflict. The United Nations-backed coalition was meant as a neutral presence, but the complications of Cold War allegiances and the United States’ traditionally close ties to Israel and Lebanon’s Christian government meant that the Americans were inevitably viewed by Muslim and Druze factions as anything but impartial.
It was in this environment, less than six months after the
Americans arrived as peacekeepers, that the embassy bombing took place. There can be no doubt that the main goal of the bombing was to intimidate the United States into pulling its forces from Lebanon. But there were other, less obvious but no less significant reasons behind the attack. Responsibility for the bombing, and the subsequent bombing of the marine barracks, was claimed by a radical wing of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. In the years leading up to these attacks, Iran had taken an increasingly aggressive role in its support of Lebanese Muslim militias, most of which were traditionally Shiite, transforming what had once been a mainly political fight into a religious and moral one. Not only did Muslim radicals want American troops gone, but they wanted to rid the country of Western cultural influence-which they saw as mainly American-as well. In the bloody years to follow, the American University of Beirut, as well as American and Western journalists, would be targets of a concerted campaign of kidnapping and intimidation.
Under any other circumstances, the Islamicizing of the conflict might have been yet another disturbing development in an already wildly fractured situation. But in the hothouse of the Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah’s fierce brand of anti-Americanism became not just a Shia or Iranian cause but a Palestinian and therefore pan-Arab cause as well. In the years since the embassy bombing, the cause has taken on many faces, including that of the vast al-Qaeda network, but the anger remains undiluted. Not only is anti-American thinking still prevalent today in the Middle East, but it has become the uniting force for radical Muslims the world over.